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Wheels Of Change, by Sue Macy

Sue Macy's Wheels of Change tells tales about the early US history of cycling, the last decades of the nineteenth century. This is not an unfamiliar subject at this stage: it's covered in the books about Major Taylor and other stars of the early American cycling scene. But there is another side to the stories already told, and that is the one that considers the impact cycling - in all of its forms - had on women of that time. That is the at the centre of the story Macy tells.

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1891 women's racing scene, US
1891 women's racing scene, US

Title: Wheels Of Change: How Women Rode The Bicycle To Freedom (With A Few Flat Tires Along The Way)
Author: Sue Macy
Publisher: National Geographic Society
Year: 2011
Pages: 96
Order: Random House
What it is: A brief look at the early years of cycling in the US, with an emphasis on the role the bike played in female emancipation.
Strengths: Briskly told, wonderfully illustrated and has plenty of quotes from primary sources.
Weaknesses: Macy tells the US tale: the European - and other - tales are still rarely told.

Macy herself is best able to tell you about the book, so here she is from the introduction:

"It's hard to grasp the full extent of the bicycle's impact on Americans in the late 19th century - particularly female Americans. Imagine a population imprisoned by their very clothing; the stiff corsets, heavy skirts, and voluminous petticoats that made it difficult to take a deep breath, let alone exercise. Add to that the laws and social conventions that cemented a man's place as head of the household and holder of the purse strings. How suffocated women must have felt. And how liberated they must have been as they pedalled their wheels toward new horizons.

"Wheels of Change looks at how the bicycle took America by storm in the 1880s and ‘90s, and especially at the ways in which it changed women's lives. It also explores the bicycle culture of the era with short features, appearing after each chapter, that highlight the impact of the two-wheeler on everyday life. You'll meet celebrity cyclists of the day, learn cycling slang, read about cycling songs and magazines, and see bicycles used in advertisements for everything from carpets to candy and baking flour."

American cycling history begins in the 1870s with Albert Pope, who began importing high-wheeled bikes from the UK and then realised there was more money to be made if he built them himself. So he retro-engineered the British bikes and called the design his own, the Columbia Bicycle. Building bikes is one thing: convincing people they want to ride them is another, especially when you consider how cumbersome - and dangerous - those early high-wheelers were. So Pope got involved in publishing enterprises that would extol the virtues of the bike, even dangling prizes - payola - in front of doctors who linked cycling and good health.

From there it was but a bunny-hop into the realm of politics, encouraging law-makers to look favourably on this new contraption. Where laws banned cycling on public roads Pope lobbied to have them overturned. Co-forming the League of American Wheelmen - the LAW - he lobbied hard for better roads. And soon formed alliances with businesses which could prosper on the back of cycling:

"[The LAW] pointed out to farmers that better rural roads would save their horses from injury. The smooth surfaces, claimed the organisation, would also allow farmers to use fewer horses to move their goods to market, resulting in an annual saving of $700 million on horse feed alone. Before long, farmers stood squarely with the LAW in the campaign for better roads. For their trouble they saw the farmland along newly paved roads double in value."

Always, I guess, you'll find someone who's able to make a profit from improving conditions for cyclists.

Looking at bikes form the nineteenth century today - even after the diamond-framed ordinary came into vogue - the machines we have now seem a world away. But many innovations in bicycle design were patented in those dieing years of the nineteenth century. Clipless pedals and disc wheels may have come into vogue in the 1980s, but patents for them were filed a century before that. And women weren't backward in coming forward and filing patents, as Macy shows by listing a few.

Kate Parke, for example, filed a patent for an improved bicycle lock in 1890 and, nine years later, Agnes Amess and Maude Polison filed a fresh patent for a combined lock and bicycle stand. Mary Henderson filed saddle patents in 1896 and ‘97. Alice Bennet's 1896 patent for a bicycle canopy would probably today contravene countless UCI regulations.

And then there were the bicycles built solely with women in mind. As if the high-wheeler wasn't dangerous enough, some bright spark invented one that could be ridden side-saddle, with two pedals on the same side of the bike (maybe Marianne Vos should be made ride side-saddle as a way of slowing her down?). And, according to Macy, the first drop-frame women's bike appeared in 1888, freeing women from having to hoist their skirts over a crossbar. It would take considerable lateral thinking before it was realised that it was the skirts and not the bikes that were the problem.

The rising popularity of cycling in the United States had consequences few could ever have foreseen. Cigar sales fell by a million a day and the industry blamed cyclists who were too busy riding to enjoy a good stogie. And then there was morphine: in 1895 the British Medical Journal noted that "morphine takers have discovered that a long spin in the fresh air on a cycle induces sweet sleep better than their favourite drug." And you thought cycling only encouraged the use of dangerous doping products?

Members of the cigar industry weren't the only ones who saw a threat from the bicycle. A lot of people the world over took against it in its early years, for many reasons. One was Charlotte Smith who, having spent many years fighting for women's rights, saw only wrong with women cycling:

"Bicycling by young women has helped to swell the ranks of reckless girls who finally drift into a standing army of outcast women of the United States. The bicycle is the devil's advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances."

The medical profession expertly played both sides of the cycling debate. On the issue of women cycling, one contributor to the British Medical Journal in 1896 found that cycling - "properly regulated and indulged in at proper times and seasons" - was a good pursuit for women to engage in. Up to a point. That point being racing:

"It must be distinctly understood that anything in the way of racing or speed competition on cycles must be injurious to any woman and should never be allowed."

That cycling can be dangerous few would argue with. But it was especially dangerous for women of the late nineteenth century. Macy quotes from an 1891 issue of Sporting Life:

"The wind was behind me, the road good, with just the least bit of down-slope, and I was skimming along like a bird, when there was an awful tug at my dress and a cracking sound. Before I knew what was the matter I found myself lying on the road with the safety on top of me. My dress was so tightly wound round the crank bracket that I could not get up until I had got it free."

Women's fashion in the nineteenth century was ... well, weird. Steel and whalebone corsets, floor length dresses which, with their under-layers of petticoats, weighed in at twenty-five pounds, all these things may have been fashionable, but they were also impractical on so many different levels. But the issue of women wearing practical clothing like trousers - ‘bifurcated garment' - was not one of fashion: rather it was one of politics, as the New York Times pointed out in 1851:

"These ladies assert their claim to rights, which we of bifurcated garment are charged with usurping. They design to evict us. They will enter per force the walks of fame, and honour, and wealth, we now occupy, to compete with us, and strip us of our present monopoly."

The shift toward practical clothing was long and slow. The Dress Reform Association formed in the US in 1857, its British counterpart - the Rational Dress Society - a quarter of a century later. In the 1880s and ‘90s the rising popularity of cycling helped push forward the demands of these societies, but a debate raged between the choice of shorter skirts and bloomers - baggy trousers gathered at the ankle - which had failed to find favour back in the 1850s when Amelia Bloomer first endorsed them. Here's the famed sportswriter Mrs Reginald de Koeven in an 1895 edition of The Cosmopolitan:

"The question of the proper dress for bicycling is still in doubt. In America, the present tendency is toward the adoption of short skirts. In smaller cities like Cleveland, Buffalo, and notably in Chicago and Boston, the bloomer costume has been largely used. This tendency must be deprecated. They are a slight gain in convenience, but there is an enormous loss of the gracefulness which every woman should religiously consider."

Anyone who can still remember MC Hammer's bloomers will agree that De Koeven had a point.

For women racers - of whom there were a few in the early years of American cycling history - there was no debate on the issue of clothing. There was debate, however, over whether women should be permitted to race. In 1896 Sporting Life found the idea of women racing to be "disgusting and degrading" and opined that: "Woman's place in racing is not on the public path." The following year the LAW - which regulated the American racing scene - passed a bye-law banning competitions for women, effectively putting women on the same level as black riders, who the LAW also took a dim view of (the National Cycling Association would break the LAW in 1900 - after having broken away in 1898 - but even for them cycling was primarily a male bastion, limited to an ever dwindling number of male professionals.)

This banning of women from racing was, of course, a case of shutting the door long after the horse had bolted: America by then had already had more than a decade of women's racing. The first female star of the American cycling scene was Louise Armaindo, a petite - five-two - French-Canadian who, like many male cyclists of her generation, had come into cycling from long-distance pedestrian races (Armaindo would go on to marry the Six Day impresario Tom Eck). As an example of just one of the race's Armaindo engaged in, Macy quotes an 1884 report from San Francisco's Daily Atlanta California:

"To-day [April 14] at noon the six-day race between Prince and Amadio, the bicyclists, and Anderson, the mustang rider, will commence. The race is to continue for six days, riding from noon to midnight each day.

"Armaindo and Prince are to relieve each other every hour, and Anderson has the privilege of changing horses whenever he pleases, but is limited to the use of fifteen horses. He has selected tough, small, half-breed horses and will ride in a common California saddle.

"The seats in the Pavilion have all been moved and a seven-lap [to the mile] track has been laid out for Anderson, and a track inside for the bicycle riders.

"Anderson feels sure of success. He is a plucky young fellow, and has time and again demonstrated remarkable endurance in the saddle. Prince is the prince of bicycle riders, and has had previous experience of this kind of racing, but has never met California horses and riders. Louise Amadio is a living example of women's physical equality with man, having won the championship against men.

"The managers appear to understand their business, and the race should prove interesting."

The Anderson-Armaindo paring clocked up 1,073 miles and one lap over the six days of the race, beating Prince and his horses by a mile and four laps.

Macy also dips into the stories of some other female stars of the era, including Elsa van Blumen and Frankie Nelson. She also covers the rivalry between century riders Jane Yatman and Jane Lindsay on Long Island in 1899. In July Yatman peeled off five centuries in fifty-eight hours. Lindsay responded with six in seventy-two in September. Within a couple of weeks Yatman was back on top, seven centuries in eighty-one hours. In October Lindsay struck back with eight centuries in just under ninety-two hours. At which point the New York Times opined that the two were driven by "bitter rivalry, that characteristic feminine trait, and the determination to ‘get even'." Could you imagine if The Comic had said something similar of Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree during the ‘90s when the two were trading Hour Records?

Macy end Wheels of Change at the end of the nineteenth century:

"As the 1890s drew to a close, the cyclists who had cast off their corsets and taken to the open road were leading the way for American women to start embracing new freedoms and a larger place in public life. Ironically, the vehicle that had delivered them to the future had almost reached the end of the road. By the turn of the century, the bicycle's heyday was over and a new mechanical wonder promised to transport men and women faster and farther than ever before. Bicycle manufacturers retooled their factories to build them and bicycle shops installed gasoline tanks to service them. The era of the motorcar had begun."

That - in America at least - the bicycle's golden age was brief and had concluded before the twentieth century came along some may choose to argue with, wishing to include the era of Six Day races in the 1920s and '30s. That the bike played a role in the emancipation of women is harder to disagree with. For the most part Macy touches on this subject lightly, examples offered without going into detail on the wider picture. In covering her subject in this fashion Macy provides a lively primer on the subject of cycling in that era, and the manner in which it impacted upon the issue of female emancipation.